We're pleased to welcome author, illustrator and storyteller Leonie Jane-Grey to talking about writing kids' books, in particular her new book Devon Folk Tales for Children which will be published in May 2019 by The History Press.
I remember creating stories and making pictures for them as early as primary school. I loved to draw imaginary mythic creatures and invent whole worlds for them to live in... and I rapidly learned to read – I’d be under a tree curled up round The Magic Faraway Tree or one of the Silver Brumby series… Later on I took English literature and illustration at A level. I went on to study fine art, more illustration and graphic design. I started creating characters and ideas for picture books, and developing concepts for YA books many years ago… I’m still reading, inventing creatures and imaginary worlds today!
I wrote the book because I absolutely love the stories… and all the characters who showed up for me - Goemagog, Vixiana, Old Hat and Torn Coat, Grandmother Silver, Fox, Buzzard and Raven. I also have a strong feeling of connection with the land in Devon, and hope the book will create a feeling of connection for the reader.
Thank you! It was lovely to create both the writing and the illustrations because when I am writing I see the landscapes and characters vividly in my imagination. I feel genuinely blessed to be able to draw them down on to the paper so I can share the way I see them with others. I love that the words and the pictures both tell the story, but not in the same way – I don’t need to describe what the pictures show.
The book is a collection of my versions of traditional folk tales and some additional original writing. I have remained rigorously true to the bones of the original stories, but have certainly related to them from a different perspective. Perhaps with a sense that, the animals and the birds, and the mythic spirits of the land - the river spirit Cutty Dyer, the giant earth energy that is Goemagog, or the pixies who live in the eaves of our houses – they see us. I truly believe that the old authentic folk tales carry messages which are very much alive and needed right now.
I had a longing to become involved in storytelling for many years, although I never actually came into contact with live storytelling till I moved to Devon. The door really opened into storytelling for me when I trained for three years as a shamanic practitioner in the UK. We were challenged to embark on a journey – a real one - and then tell the story of our journey in a bardic style. Storytelling can be a powerful experience, especially when we open up a space and create connection with something other, something bigger than us. It can be truly magical.
After that the stories had me! I went to see storytellers perform and attended workshops, and I went to the Beyond the Border Storytelling festival, which was fabulous. I started to find the stories which felt like they were mine to tell - the ones that took hold of me and didn’t let go. Then, one day I was speaking to a lady called Jenny Cann, who lived not far from me, and happened to mention that I was serious about becoming a storyteller. It turned out that before retiring Jenny had a successful career as a theatre director with wealth of experience in London, including West End, and across the Midlands.
Jenny offered to help me with my performance skills. She kept a pony locally on her own land, so we met for teaching sessions and rehearsals in the hay barn! On sunny days she’d have me practice ‘blocking’ or ‘walking the story’ out on the stable yard. I learned elements of stage craft, performance, voice production, timing… it was astonishing really. I started to tell stories to children in schools, small festivals and community venues for adults, and I developed my ‘Art of Story’ creative workshops. Jenny still has a hawk-eye on my performance. I am incredibly blessed.
Illustrations by Leonie Jane-Grey
When I am telling a story I see the images I am describing in my imagination, the characters really come alive. They walk alongside me. A written down old folk tale can sometimes actually feel a little lifeless compared to a story being told in the moment – a living experience shared between teller and listeners. Sometimes a storyteller might re-animate a written down story – bring it back to life.
One of the ways storytelling influenced my writing was that not only did I re-animate the old written-down stories I found, but it was important to me that my own writing then preserved the life and energy I had felt. In my storytelling practice I explore using language expressively with a feeling for poetic rhythm. I hope some of that feeling is woven into my writing.
The opportunity to write Devon Folk Tales for Children came to me with beautiful serendipity. My book forms one of a series of collections of traditional folk tales from across the UK published by The History Press. Each collection is written by a storyteller who knows the region and the folk tales well. I met the folks from the History Press at the Beyond the Border storytelling festival, and I then submitted my proposal to them for Devon Folk Tales for Children.
I have been lucky to have the support of one or two people who are knowledgeable and very honest. I recommend finding someone who’s own standards are very high, who’s judgement you trust, and who is prepared to give you some strong feedback on your writing.
I gave one of my scripts to my mentor Jenny Cann and it came back with half the writing crossed out and a lot of other stuff written on it in blue biro. I’m very grateful for that. She was right. Equally, Clare Barker( author of the series Knitbone Pepper and Picklewitch and Jack) read my stories and then agreed to write the foreword for my book I was absolutely thrilled – it was a real compliment, and one that I trust.
Well, in this case I’ll be out telling folk tales from Devon with a fox by my feet and a giant standing behind me – opening a space for the old spirits to walk amongst us and the trickster pixies to come play – I’m looking forward to that!
I recently treated myself to some new art materials - beautiful inks and soft colour pencils. I’m imagining powerful new images of mythic beings - of Bluebeard, Baba Yaga, Fox Woman and Cundrie… I am enjoying exploring colour, texture and pattern in my artwork. My own writing is always on-going and I’m preparing a series of my own character based children’s picture books for submission, plus lots of new ‘Art of Story’ workshops and Devon folk tales are ready for storytelling fun…
Well, I have to say I don’t feel envy, but I do admire many writers - they offer a lot to aspire to. I love writing which is so skillfully crafted that the writer’s voice doesn’t get in the way of the story.
For example, I remember reading White Fang by Jack London as a kid and it was as though I’d stepped through some opening into another world… I couldn’t see or hear the classroom I was in any more. I was there in the wilderness feeling the cold. Another book which blew me away for a different reason – A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness took me through a powerful emotional journey yet I don’t remember the author ever describing the feelings of the main character. There was no need, I was there with him every step of the way. I think writing like this is astounding.
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